Letters: The cost of the Victorian bushfires (letter)by Jim SmithNews Weekly
, April 5, 2003
After five years of drought with well below average rainfall, the scene was set for one of the worst fire seasons on record.
Prior to Christmas an extremely large fire was contained as it left National Park boundaries and entered private property. This fire burnt 200,000 ha. of national park and private property in the Big Desert country in north western Victoria. A wakeup call!
It was on January 8 that things began to happen as lightning started 57 fires in remote parts of north east Victoria. All these fires were burning forested country that was difficult to access by road and was also very steep.
Aircraft were quickly deployed to drop fire crews into fires and also for water bombing operations.
Given the hot dry and windy conditions accompanied by very low humidity with extremely dry fuels anything was likely to happen. It did as fires spread rapidly and crews had to be air-evacuated from fire lines as the potential for a major tragedy became obvious.
With this in mind numerous fall-back control lines were put in place using existing tracks and putting new ones in using earth-moving equipment.
Due to the lack of fuel reduction burning over recent years, particularly in national parks, the fires were much hotter and more erratic, which impacted on control operations. The fact that tracks in many areas were poorly maintained, or not at all, added to the problem.
This can be attributed to government policy as national parks are only prepared to maintain tracks that are important for park management. Secondly, there is a clear lack of funding to maintain tracks and roads in a serviceable condition. Thirdly, departmental staff cuts during the Kennett days removed valuable experienced people who have not been replaced. The reduced areas being logged has also cut staff experience with fire control operations.
The Government also restricts what operations can take place in certain areas with regards to protection of flora and fauna habitats as well as individual species.
The total area burnt by these fires exceeded 1.2 million hectares. The fires burned for eight weeks.
During this large fire the decision was made to give priority to the protection of assets and communities, which also had the effect of removing resources from the fire front.
At all times a high priority was given to the health and safety of all personnel, including CFA volunteers. One unfortunate and tragic accident did occur with loss of life. Given the conditions, management must be congratulated.
After the fire farmers found burnt livestock of which many had to be destroyed and disposed of. Kilometres of fencing had to be replaced, and livestock were in need of feed and water. Some families had been burnt out, lost their homes and will have to rebuild not only their houses but also their lives.
On government land, track rehabilitation has begun as access to tracks is now being closed.
Of the large amount of merchantable timber burnt, it is anticipated that 50 per cent can be salvage logged - being about 10,000 ha, which is a huge load on resources that normally log 300 ha per year
The result of so many river catchments being burnt is that when the rains come, as they will, river water will be polluted with silt, soil, rocks and timber. Town water supplies will be undrinkable, fish will die and dams will silt up, while hydropower generating turbines may be damaged.
Road infrastructures are also at risk with burnt wooden bridges, unstable side cuts due lack of vegetation which can lead to landslides during rain periods.
Grapes that are sold for wine making are contaminated with smoke and in most cases cannot be economically processed.
The production of mint oil in the Corryong area was reduced by 50% due to the number of days with smoke haze.
Tourist industries also suffered with fewer visitors during the fires and may suffer further if water quality deteriorates.
Road closures during winter and spring are also real possibilities.
Costs to local communities were high as production was down while CFA volunteers directly contributed to the fire operations. Only those industries that provided services to the fires such as meals, food, accommodation, fuel and hardware did well.
The final cost of this fire suppression operation is not yet available, but it is only a small proportion of the total cost to the people of Victoria.Jim Smith,